13: Professionalism What is professionalism?

Chapter 13

What is professionalism?

Nairn Wilson


The aim of this chapter is to consider professionalism in dentistry, with special emphasis on the dental team.


This chapter will provide insight into professionalism as it relates to all members of the dental team, with pointers as to how professionalism should be developed to meet the every changing and increasing expectations of society.


There is no widely recognised, all-embracing definition of professionalism, let alone a definition specific to dentistry. Furthermore, the concept of professionalism continues to evolve to reflect changes in society in respect of values and expectations. That said, few would contest the following statement: professionalism is fulfilling all the expectations of being a member of a profession, having a vocation or calling that involves expertise or a high level of understanding, practised and typically regulated according to a set of standards, expectations or obligations. The expectations and obligations of being a member of the dental profession vary little from country to country. These expectations and obligations are embodied in the six principles that underpin being a dental professional:

  • putting patient’s interests first and acting to protect them

  • respecting patient’s dignity and choices

  • protecting the confidentiality of patient’s information

  • cooperating with other members of the dental team and other healthcare colleagues in the interests of the patient

  • maintaining professional knowledge and competence

  • being trustworthy.

To add to the above, society in general expects amongst other qualities, a professional person to be:

  • respectable: to behave in an appropriate manner

  • responsible: to act in reasonable, considered ways

  • reliable: to honour commitments and keep promises

  • honest: to always tell the truth

  • robust in terms of their professional integrity: an unswerving commitment to professionalism.

Quite a list of obligations and expectations, but society looks for such wide-ranging commitment if individuals are to be afforded the privilege of classifying themselves as professionals and to claim membership of a profession.

Professionalism: a way of life

Professionalism is not limited to time spent in the clinical environment; it is a 24/7 commitment. This is not to say that a professional person can never relax and enjoy themselves. When they do, however, it should not be in a way which causes offence or brings the profession into disrepute. Professionalism is, at all time, an individual responsibility of members of the profession and of the profession as a whole. It becomes a way of life that is reflected, first and foremost, in putting patients first and, in a more general context, in being a good citizen with a social conscience.

Professionalism is a 24/7 commitment.

Professionalism in working life

Professionalism involves many complex relationships. These include relationships with patients, colleagues and other members of the dental team, and with individuals who support and otherwise facilitate the work of the team. The interactions and influences of these relationships are constantly changing with time and circumstances, often on a day-to-day basis. They need to be the subject of checks and balances to keep them in a stable, albeit dynamic, equilibrium. This demands constant awareness of personal behaviours towards others, personal reactions to challenges and threatening situations, and the views others form of you, both as a fellow human being and as a member of the profession. The dentist as the leader of the dental team has special responsibilities in this regard – leadership by example.

The other major aspects of professionalism in personal matters include professionalism in clinical practice, spanning its many varied forms, and professionalism in conducting all relevant business transactions. The maxim in such matters is ‘always treat people the way you would wish to be treated’. Success in achieving these goals generates and justifies trust. Any abuse of trust is a major breach of professionalism, with the inevitable negative effects on the standing of the individual and the profession as a whole. Doing the right thing, the right way, at the right time, with the right outcome underpins professionalism in professional matters. This requires well-developed, self-awareness, including being alert to:

  • personal and professional strengths and weaknesses

  • variations in personal motivation and attitudes

  • personal biases and the influence of personal beliefs and cultural background

  • personality traits and reactions to different types of people, circumstances and situations.

Professionalism means always treating people the way you would wish to be treated.

No healthcare professional is perfect, let alone superhuman, and consequently suffers from certain failings and limitations, often occurring as occasional minor lapses in otherwise good, if not exemplary professional behaviour. Recognising when such lapses occur and having the honesty and integrity to admit to them if they do, and to take appropriate remedial action, shows great strength of conviction to professionalism. More often than not, all that is required to demonstrate professionalism in the face of some lapse in behaviour is to be ‘big enough’ to apologise appropriately. Furthermore, subsequent to the event, there is a need to reflect on what caused the lapse in behaviour and to take steps to prevent a recurrence.

Professionalism to students and new members of the profession may seem to be a demanding, ever-present challenge to temper personal behaviour and act differently from peers in other walks of life – a threat to self-expression and, in many cases, new-found autonomy. This may well be the reality of the situation, but given the opportunities afforded by a career in a healthcare profession, being professional is a small price to pay.

Professionalism in personal life

Professionalism in personal matters spans personal conduct, morality and decency and social responsibility. What is considered to be acceptable and, more importantly, unacceptable in such matters differs from person to person: what may be acceptable and unremarkable to one person may be quite unacceptable and reprehensible to another. By way of a guide, it is important to consider what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour to the majority of reasonable people. In suggesting such an approach, it is to be remembered that not all people are reasonable and in reality ‘there is no pleasing all the people all of the time’; however, this should not stop a professional from trying to achieve this goal. Behaviou/>

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Jan 4, 2015 | Posted by in General Dentistry | Comments Off on 13: Professionalism What is professionalism?
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